Mary Cease and Indiana County’s Catch 22

Mary Cease. Photo by Steve Mellon, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

An Opinion

 By David Loomis

INDIANA — No wonder Mary Cease, of Clymer, wants to flee Indiana County. Its housing authority has repeatedly denied federal assistance to the medical-marijuana patient in a classic case of Catch 22.

In Joseph Heller’s 1961 World War II novel, a Catch 22 is an utterly absurd no-win situation typifying bureaucratic logic in a military context – a SNAFU.

The case of Ms. Cease, 66, a former member of the U.S. military, is set in a civilian context. She has a cannabis prescription authorized by state law in 2016. She got the prescription to get off opioid medications prescribed for chronic back pain and post-traumatic stress.

Nearly every other authority in Indiana County has endorsed such personal substance transitions. In 2017 the president of biomedical company Agrimed lobbied local officials for their blessing of a medical-marijuana dispensary he sought to establish here.

Why Indiana County? Because of its high rate of opioid deaths, he said. Medical marijuana is just what doctors – and legislators — ordered to fight epidemic opioid addiction, he asserted.

County commissioners were enthusiastic and wide-ranging in their letter of support.

“Our support of Agrimed Industries is shared by community leaders throughout Indiana County, including law enforcement agencies, drug and alcohol prevention and care professionals and the Chamber of Commerce,” commissioners wrote then.

The Indiana dispensary did not materialize by its spring 2018 forecast. But in the official record, local support for medical marijuana as therapy for opioid addiction remains nearly unanimous.

That record extends to Harrisburg, where state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, and state Sen Don White, R-Indiana, voted for the 2016 state medical-marijuana law that legalized Ms. Cease’s prescription.

 

THE CATCH 22 in Ms. Cease’s case enters at the federal level. She has been receiving housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But when she sought Section 8 assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the county’s program administrator balked.

Why? Because what’s legally and medically appropriate in Indiana County and Pennsylvania ain’t legally and medically appropriate in Washington, D.C. The federal bureaucracy is in conflict with local and state authority.

Pennsylvania is one of 31 states that have legalized medical marijuana. Nine states have legalized recreational use. The issue is on the November ballot in four additional states. More than six in 10 Americans say marijuana should be legalized. (A small majority of Republicans — 51 percent — oppose legalization.)

The states’ embrace of marijuana is the essence of federalism. The feds, however, fail to heed and lag far behind. They continue to criminalize the weed, as they have done since the 1930s when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics inaugurated a propaganda campaign  administered by a former federal Prohibition bureaucrat facing unemployment upon repeal of the infamous 18th Amendment. The resulting “Reefer Madness” was widely discredited and ridiculed.

 

Bonni Dunlap, pH.d., executive director, Indiana County Housing Authority.

TODAY THIS LEGACY has contributed to the Catch 22 in the case of Ms. Cease. At recent administrative hearings, Indiana County Housing Authority executive director Bonni Dunlap, Ph.D., argued that she is bound to deny Ms. Cease’s Section 8 application under federal law and HUD directives.

Ms. Cease’s lawyer, Harrisburg attorney Judith D. Cassel, countered that those federal directives grant Ms. Dunlap discretionary authority to transfer Ms. Cease into the Section 8 program.

Ms. Dunlap declined comment in response to an Oct. 9 phone message.

The case continues on appeal in civil court, where reason, discretion, compassion and promotion of the general welfare may yet prevail by Christmas in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” ending sketched by attorney Cassel.

Meanwhile, Ms. Cease’s case is not the only one of its kind.  The problem demands a wider fix that goes beyond case-by-case rulings of bureaucrats and administrators and instead provides a legislative fix for the general welfare nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

That’s a job for the U.S. Congress. Alas, it is not up to the task.

A member of the U.S. Congress submitted such legislation last summer. Ms. Cease’s congressman, U.S. Rep Bill Shuster, R-Pa., should be a co-sponsor. He is not, even though he has nothing to lose. The eight-term incumbent chose not to seek re-election.

 

TO BE FAIR, Rep. Shuster is not the only member of Congress who is complicit in this Catch 22. To all of his congressional accessories, Ms. Cease supplied a reason for action in an interview with a Pittsburgh newspaper: “It’s a crazy thing to do to an old woman who has no criminal background, and who owes nobody anything, and is living in a place where you cannot expand your mind.”

Cassel, Cease’s attorney, adds another reason why lawmakers should act to end this Catch 22:

“This case sends a message to legislators,” Cassel said in an Oct. 8 phone interview. “You can’t just pass a law and leave all these loose ends for people of modest means to figure out on their own.”

——————————-

David Loomis, Ph.D., retired associate professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye. Email doloomis@iup.edu

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other opinions on issues of community interest. 

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